Confronted with a revitalized unionizing effort among its workers, New Seasons management is turning to a familiar tactic: Hire a national law firm that's helped fight union organizing at Trump-owned companies to quash the labor movement. According to the National Labor Relations Board filing, New Seasons has hired a lawyer with Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart to represent the company in the face of two union efforts at both a Portland and Hillsboro New Seasons store.
Ogletree Deakins has made a name for itself primarily representing right-wing politicians and organizations—ranging from Arizona's former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to the Republican National Committee (RNC). The firm was also hired by Amazon to fight a union campaign among its delivery drivers and by Lyft to quash its own drivers' union efforts.
Notably, Ogletree Deakins was used to fight unionizing efforts at Donald Trump's Atlantic City casino and hotel before it shuttered under bankruptcy in 2016.
This isn't the first time New Seasons has paid one of Trump's past union-busters to quash workers' organizing. In 2017, the first time New Seasons workers made moves to unionize, management brought in Cruz & Associates, a consulting firm that Trump hired in 2016 to extinguish union organizing at his Las Vegas hotels. The firm effectively fizzled out the organizing campaign.
This also isn't Ogletree Deakins' first foray into fighting unions in Portland. In January, Powell's Books hired the law firm to represent the company when the store's union accused Powell's of violating the National Labor Relations Act. The law firm has also represented Portland's Mondelez bakery, Jacobs Heating and Air Conditioning, Legacy Emmanuel Hospital, and Sysco Portland.
Two separate groups of New Seasons workers filed paperwork with NLRB signaling their intent to form a union in late May. One group is made up of workers at New Season's SE Division and 20th store, while the other is composed of workers at a store in Hillsboro's Orenco Station neighborhood. The Portland workers union chose to form independently—inspired by Amazon worker's independent union in New York, while Hillsboro workers are hoping to join an already established union, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555.
New Seasons' CEO promptly responded to this news with a long letter to workers stoking distrust in the union campaigns and advising against unionizing. It now appears the grocery chain, which is owned by a global retail company, is doubling down on its anti-union messaging with a legal strategy.
New Seasons CEO Nancy Lebold explained the decision in an email to the Mercury.
"We have begun working with experienced counsel to represent us in the NLRB proceedings and help us navigate the nuances of federal labor law, as employers are limited in what they can say once an organizing process has begun," wrote Lebold. "Any consultative relationship we have, however, won’t detract from our commitment to taking care of our staff first and foremost."
New Seasons workers are using the law firm's affiliations to gain their coworkers support of the unionizing effort. Workers distributed flyers in store break rooms with information about Ogletree Deakins' work history—including its experience consulting the RNC in late 2020, when the RNC doubled down on Trump's "stolen election" claims.
"Ogletree Deakins aligns itself with racists and anti-democratic efforts," reads the flyer's header in bold.
Bob Bussel, the longtime director of the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center, said he's not at all surprised by New Seasons' hire.
"Hiring an anti-union law firm is part of the playbook," said Bussel. "But it's the line of argument [New Seasons] chooses to go with that will be interesting."
That's because New Seasons is facing two different types of union campaigns: One, in Portland, that is entirely worker-organized, and another, in Hillsboro, that is being led by a larger, more established labor union. When facing workers wanting to join an established union, Bussel said, management's anti-union campaigns usually tell workers that they don't need to bring in an outside organization to work out a problem between management and workers. And when up against an independent, worker-led union, anti-union campaigns center more on sowing doubt that workers lack of labor organizing experience will undermine the effort.
With both of these campaigns rolling out at the same time, Bussel said, it may be more challenging for New Seasons to hold firm on its anti-union message.
Bussel also believes that the national climate around labor organizing will undoubtedly help New Seasons workers' union push.
"It’s hard to know what this moment in labor history will become," said Bussel. "There are some real interesting dynamics going on here. The pandemic has highlighted a number of inequities and concerns that workers have, and a tight labor market has given them the upper hand. The national level of approval for unions shows that, if it's not an all-time high, it's right up there."
According to 2021 Gallup poll, unions have the highest national approval rating since 1965. This bodes well for New Seasons workers, Bussel said.
"These dynamics are all playing into this movement of collective action as a campaign for social justice," he added. "I would think in a place like Portland, workers that are organizing would find a supportive public."